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WILLIAM WEDDELL'S REFINED TASTE

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 16th December 2011
One of the most striking monuments in Ripon Cathedral is found on the south wall of the south transept. It consists of what seems to be half a classical temple, with a bust of an aristocratic man on a pedestal in the centre.

The subject of the monument is William Weddell of Newby Hall. The inscription says that ‘In all the works of Art and genius No Man ever possessed a more correct Judgement, or a more discriminating Taste.’ So who was the correct and discriminating Mr Weddell, and what did he do that merited this fine monument and distinguished eulogy?

Strictly speaking he was not a Weddell at all, but an Elcock. His parents Richard and Barbara were first cousins. Their grandfather was a York merchant called William Weddell, but it was their uncle Thomas Weddell of Earswick who made the family’s money. He did this in two ways – his cousin-by-marriage John Aislabie of Studley Royal, then a senior government minister, had Thomas appointed as Paymaster to the Navy (a very profitable post); and with Aislabie he speculated in the South Sea Bubble, taking his money before the bubble burst.

Thomas took a hand in the education of Richard and Barbara Elcock’s two surviving sons, Thomas, the elder, and William, who was born 275 years ago in 1736. The boys were initially sent to school in Ripon as boarders, but in 1747 great-uncle Thomas packed them off to Dr Newcome’s Academy in Hackney. Dr Newcome was a Dissenting minister and a true Whig, and many of the Whig Gentry sent their sons to him; the Duke of Devonshire’s third son, Lord John Cavendish, joined the Academy in the same year as Thomas and William Elcock; other fellow pupils were the sons of the Lord Chancellor.

Not long after they arrived, great-uncle Thomas died. His complicated will resulted in Richard Elcock’s inheriting his fortune – even without the extensive land holdings, it amounted to around £70,000. One condition was that he took the name Weddell, after his uncle. So Thomas and William Elcock became Weddells, too.

In 1748 Richard bought Newby Hall. Thomas and William stayed at school. In 1753 William, like Thomas, became a member of St John’s College in Cambridge, though neither took a degree. William had cultured friends at Cambridge, and learned to love the classics: but he was set on course to be a lawyer – he entered Gray’s Inn in London, with the expectation of a good career.

But on Christmas Eve 1756 his elder brother Thomas died, and William was thus heir to the fortune. By 1762, when he was 26, both his parents were dead, and on 20 August that year he set off on his Grand Tour. It’s likely that he visited the Gobelins tapestry manufacturers that year to order the tapestries that still hang at Newby. After a brief return home for family reasons, he continued his tour to Italy. There he had his portrait painted by the fashionable Pompeo Batoni and set about collecting classical sculpture.

One of his major purchases was the so-called Barberini Venus, which he bought from an English antiquities dealer, Thomas Jenkins; although the statue’s arms were a modern restoration and its head didn’t belong to its body, Weddell was said to have handed over the highest price paid during the 18th century for an antique sculpture. When it was sold in 2002 the Barberini Venus broke the world auction record for an antiquity; it went for almost £8 million to a Qatari sheik.

Weddell returned from the Grand Tour in 1765 and, as a country gentleman, thought it right to enter parliament. Thanks to the patronage of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, whose power base was Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham, Weddell became MP for Hull – he was later MP for Malton. And thanks to Lady Rockingham, he also found a wife – her half-sister, Elizabeth Ramsden (though it was said he had earlier fought a duel with the Duke of Grafton over a widow, Mrs Harris).

Marriage and an important collection of antiquities took Weddell’s mind off his political career. He spent much of his time at work on his plans for Newby Hall, which he transformed with great taste and subtlety. The most notable of his works was his sculpture gallery, designed to show off his classical statuary. The building was designed by John Carr, had amendments made by Sir William Chambers (educated, like Weddell, in Ripon) and was given its splendid interiors by Robert Adam.

Despite his wealth (added to when Elizabeth brought a settlement of £10,000 and an annual income of £1000) there were disappointments. He might have expected at least a baronetcy if not a peerage – but it never happened, partly because Rockingham fell from power. And he and Elizabeth were childless.

So when William Weddell died on 30 April 1792 his wealth went elsewhere – to his cousin Thomas Robinson, 3rd Lord Grantham. To mark William’s passing, Elizabeth commissioned the monument in what was then Ripon Minster. The bust of Weddell is by the Royal Academician (and miser) Joseph Nollekens, and the surrounding temple is based on an ancient Athenian original, known as the Choragic Monument, put up in 335 BC and known through 18th-century drawings by the architect James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

From his pedestal (copied from one in the Newby sculpture gallery that he bought from the artist Piranese) Weddell surveys (more easily since the railings which once surrounded him are there no longer) later generations who may not have lived up to his ‘correct Judgement’, or his ‘discriminating Taste’. The monument, though, gives us an insight into the classical predilections of this wealthy and cultured man. As it says in the pedestal inscription, it is ‘a faint Emblem of his refined Taste’; it is also Ripon Cathedral’s most important monument.

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